Bashed out in just 35 days on a knackered old typewriter sporting a bullet hole from his days as a war reporter, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day Of The Jackal — 50 years old this month — changed thriller writing for ever.
It didn’t matter that everyone knew the ending before they read it; set in the early 1960s, the plot revolves around a professional assassin’s attempt to kill Charles de Gaulle.
But the former French president had died at home several months earlier in November 1970.
Nor did it matter that Forsyth’s first novel reads more like a documentary than fiction. Or that it became the go-to manual for an alarming number of real-life hitmen.
What matters is that, over the past half century, ‘Jackal’ has sold millions of copies in myriad languages.
It has won numerous awards, inspired a hit 1973 film that turned Edward Fox into a star (although Forsyth himself missed out on a substantial portion of the profits) — and must have been read, or watched, by half the globe’s population.
So in celebration of a truly great story, Jane Fryer reveals 15 things you didn’t know about Forsyth’s global bestseller.
How it all began…
In late 1969, 31-year-old Forsyth was in a mess. A journalist just back from covering a foreign war, he’d been fired by the BBC, discredited by the Foreign Office, was broke and sleeping on a friend’s sofa. On a desperate whim, he decided to try to pay off his debts by writing a novel.
‘As a recipe for success, that’s as daft as it gets,’ he said in a recent podcast with The Spectator’s Sam Leith. ‘But I sat down on January 2, 1970 and just started to type . . . I had 500 sheets of A4 paper and an idea.’
The Day of the Jackal was bashed out in just 35 days on a knackered old typewriter by author Frederick Forsyth, 31 at the time, (pictured) sporting a bullet hole from days as a war reporter
He knew nothing about structure or chapters so, sticking to what he did know, he wrote it as a journalist might. ‘I dashed off 350 pages in 35 days and it’s never been changed. I don’t know why. Not a line, not a word, not a phrase has ever been changed from that day to this.’
Birth of The Jackal
The Jackal never had a name and it took Forsyth some time even to settle on a suitably predatory animal for his codename— the Eagle, Lion, Wolf and Bear were all considered and rejected. ‘I wanted something different,’ Forsyth has said. ‘He’s elusive. He comes in the night. He kills and he disappears by dawn. And there it was — The Jackal!’
On target for success
Best-seller: The 140,000-word manuscript was snapped up by Hutchinson & Co and sold two and a half million copies within five years
After just three rejections from publishers, the 140,000-word manuscript was snapped up by Hutchinson & Co. Within five years, it had sold two and a half million copies.
Today, Forsyth, 82, confesses that he’s still a bit bewildered at how it happened. ‘It wasn’t the result of years of struggle, practice, drafting, redrafting and endless rejections. It shouldn’t have happened this way, but it did,’ he said. ‘And it was grossly unfair to other strivers.’
Blueprint for ‘howdunnits’
The Day Of The Jackal was a ‘howdunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’ and it inspired a generation of thriller writers, from Tom Clancy to Lee Child.
The intermingling of fact and fiction, and the emphasis on the minutiae of the assassination process, combined to create that extraordinary level of tension and suspense maintained throughout the book. ‘That was a completely radical change, it hadn’t been done before,’ says Child.
Art imitating life
Forsyth might have bashed it out in less than six weeks, but the book was based on a wealth of personal experience and meticulous research — both in the Reading Room in the British Library and during Forsyth’s stint in Paris during the early Sixties as a Reuters correspondent.
He had been witness to the numerous failed attempts made by OAS (a French dissident paramilitary organisation) on De Gaulle’s life — including one involving exploding flower vases.
‘Luckily, they weren’t very good assassins,’ said Forsyth.
In the book the Jackal has to acquire a new identity to carry out his mission. He trawls headstones in church graveyards to find the name of a boy who, if he had lived, would be the same age as him now.
The assassin then buys a copy of the child’s birth certificate and applies for a new passport in that name.
Thriller writer Frederick Forsyth (pictured with his CBE medal) missed out on royalties from selling the rights to turn his book into a film for £20,000 – the equivalent of £250,000 today
The method was, at the time of writing, a well-known security loophole that was used by the underworld and the KGB. Today, it is still known as ‘Day Of The Jackal fraud’.
It wasn’t until the film was released that officials started to take seriously warnings from Forsyth himself that fraudsters might attempt copycat crimes.
It was later still that the London Public Records and Passport offices tightened their regulations to make it harder to steal and use a dead person’s identity.
Forsyth visited a notorious forger to find out how to fake a British passport using a birth certificate from a dead citizen. Meanwhile, a friendly gunsmith told him how to design a sniper rifle so slim it could be concealed in a crutch.
A terror handbook?
A copy in Hebrew was found in the possession of Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated his prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.
The notorious Venezuelan terrorist ‘Carlos’ was also known as The Jackal after the novel was identified among his belongings.
And Vladimir Arutyunian, who tried to assassinate President George W. Bush, kept a heavily annotated copy close to hand.
The 1973 film, directed by Fred Zinnemann, took over £10 million at the box office.
Roger Moore, Robert Redford, Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson were all contenders to play The Jackal, but were pipped by the then relatively unknown Edward Fox, who better fitted Zinnemann’s desire for someone ‘nimble and willowy’. (The less said about the 1997 remake, starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, the better.)
Edward Fox starred in the Hollywood film of The Day of the Jackal directed by Fred Zinnemann
The killer film deal
For the film contract to buy the rights to his book, Forsyth was offered a choice of deals; £17,500 plus a small percentage of film profits; or £20,000 and no royalties.
He took the latter — still a huge sum and worth the equivalent of £250,000 today — but could have made far, far more if he’d opted for the first deal. Not that it mattered, as he went on to write a slew of bestsellers, including The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol.
During filming, Forsyth introduced Edward Fox to a real-life hired killer whom he’d met as a war reporter in Africa.
Such was the physical similarity between actor Adrien Cayla-Legrand and Charles de Gaulle himself that when filming took place — during a real parade — some Parisians were so convinced they tried to help arrest the ‘suspects’.
And when ‘De Gaulle’ first exited his limousine, one elderly extra who was playing one of the veteran soldiers fainted in shock. By then, the president had been dead for almost two years.
Forsyth rarely revisits his books once complete, so can remember very little detail. But when, in a 2004 episode of Mastermind, a contestant chose Forsyth’s novels as his special subject, he tuned in out of interest and was thrashed. ‘He flattened me,’ he said. ‘He could even name the chambermaid!’
A fruity faux pas?
Those readers with a real eye for detail might spot one teeny, possible mistake — on page 134 of the new 50th anniversary edition. In order to calibrate his gun, The Jackal takes a ‘dark green’ honeydew melon into the forest and starts shooting at it, as if it is de Gaulle’s skull. Dark green? Aren’t honeydews rather more golden?
Today the book is winning a new audience. Recently, an enthusiastic fan approached Forsyth, asking: ‘How on earth did you make up a character like Charles de Gaulle?’